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Tattoo Parties - Are They Safe?

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Tattoo parties have been around for a long time. The idea is simple. A bunch of friends get together at someone's house, a tattoo artist shows up and everyone (brave enough) gets a tattoo! Sounds fun, right?

On the surface, a tattoo party does sound fun. Imagine it - a room full of friends, hanging out, laughing at each others' expressions of pain, showing off their new tattoos once finished. A beautiful woman with pearly white teeth smiles lovingly at her equally handsome boyfriend as he shows everyone the tattoo he got bearing her name. The ruggedly attractive and colorfully tattooed artist does one gorgeous tattoo after another, grinning ear to ear as everyone in the room sings his praises and promises to tell all their friends about him. And to top it off, he doesn't have to report the tattoos to the boss man at the shop, who would normally want a piece of every dollar he makes. It's a win-win situation. Good money and having fun at the same time; why not?

The problem is, that isn't a really accurate picture of most tattoo parties. The romantic imagery we connect with the idea of a tattoo party is the same thing advertisers have been able to appeal to for years when selling products they know aren't really good for us. Well, I'm no advertiser and I'm here to give you a reality check about tattoo parties.

Let me start off by saying this does not apply to all tattoo parties. But most of them are held for one or all of the following three reasons:

  1. The clients are just looking for the cheapest tattoo they can get
  2. The clients are minors and can’t get tattooed legally
  3. The tattooist isn't licensed or legal and has to do his/her work underground

The real scene usually involves the use of cigarettes (which obviously isn't conducive to a clean and sterile environment), alcohol, or even drugs. The alleged "artist" rarely follows any kind of safety protocols; when you're trying to bang out several tattoos in one night, you're not going to do your best work and you're not going to take extra time to make sure every tattoo is clean and sterile. Most basement artists don't even have autoclave sterilizers for their equipment and seem to think boiling them in water is sufficient. Even if they use single-use needles, which is the typical line of defense for many of these tattooers, that doesn't mean you're safe. When a person is tattooed, microscopic blood and body fluids spray and fly everywhere; everything around the client and the tattooer is contaminated. The only way to kill the germs, bacteria and blood-borne pathogens that go along with every tattoo is to make sure every inch of the artist's work station is cleaned and sterilized thoroughly between clients. All surfaces must be non-porous like tile floors and vinyl seats; anything porous should be protected by being covered with plastic, and then that plastic must be discarded after every client. You think the person running the tattoo party cares about doing all of this? In most cases, no. Also, if a tattooist doesn't mind breaking the law by tattooing minors, I seriously doubt they care about any other rules they might be breaking. It should also be noted that in some states, the tattoo party itself is illegal.

Like I said, this does not apply to all tattoo parties. I happen to know an artist who does perfectly legitimate tattoo parties from time to time, but this is not the norm. Most of them result in clients getting really bad tattoos (you get what you pay for, people) or, even worse, some kind of infection or blood disease.

In 2005, the health department reported that at least seven people in Toledo (Ohio) contracted a bacterial infection known as MRSA, or methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus, after getting a tattoo at one of these so-called parties. The supposed "artist" in this case was arrested.

In 2007, an article discussing a Michigan county's effort to regulate tattoos highlights a woman named Tennille Grihorash. Tennille now lives with regret over a tattoo she received a few years ago at a tattoo party. [She said] "the tattoo came out sloppy, like a child had done it. It's like the most horrible thing you've ever seen." (Detroit Free Press)

So, forget the romantic imagery. It's a lie. If you're too cheap to pay full price for a tattoo, then don't get one. If you're a minor, wait until you're old enough. And if you're a tattooer throwing unsafe tattoo parties, God help you; I hope you don't kill someone for the sake of your own greed.

If you have several friends that would like to enjoy the bonding experience of a tattoo party in a safe environment with sterile equipment, talk to your artist about arranging the private use of the tattoo studio for that purpose. (And don't expect it to be cheap!)

If you know someone who plans to attend a tattoo party or basement tattooer, please try to talk them out of it! The future of body art depends on it remaining a respectable form of art. When people get sick from tattoos (or piercings), it damages the reputation that so many legitimate artists have worked diligently to earn for our industry. Don't let their efforts be in vain.

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